A short story by Peter Jobes.
I was thirty-six years old when I fell in love for the first and only time. I guess by that stage I suspected I never would, when all you’ve ever known is fighting it starts to feel that cupid has taken a dislike to your whole generation. Gertrude Stein called the generation before ours the lost generation. If only she had seen this one, then she’d have known about lost.
It was on November tenth nineteen fifty-one that I first met her. In one of those strange twists of fate it was my birthday, Miklós and János were out of the city and I was left to contemplate alone in a little café by the Danube. It was a cold day and there was little to smile about. The trees had lost all of their leaves and the faces of the passers-by were marked only by their melancholy. I noticed her the first time she walked past, she was the only one who looked alive. The cold didn’t seem to bother her and her cheeks had a rosy hue. Her face was slightly angular looking and it was framed perfectly by her thick brown hair, which had been buffeted out of shape by the wind. She wore a brown coat that reached almost to her knees and a slightly threadbare red scarf. I watched her as she walked by and along the river for a stretch; she stopped and took a watch from her pocket, looked at it for a few moments and turned back towards the café.
I always say that November tenth is when we first met but the truth is that we didn’t speak. She sat inside and I remained outside, wishing I knew what to say to a lady. They don’t teach you that in the army. They don’t really care how you communicate as long as you can look a man in the eyes and still pull the trigger. So I stirred sugar into my now cold coffee, wondering why it wouldn’t dissolve, and I thought that if I had the courage to speak up she’d probably find me bland anyway. If I had brought my pad I would have sketched her, sitting there looking beautiful, but it was my birthday, I’d not came out to draw. I tried to figure out what she had ordered, some vague idea of seeing her again and knowing what to order for her. At first I thought that would be romantic, then I realised it would just be creepy.
It was November twelfth when we first spoke. I remember it was a Monday. Before I got to the café I passed the refuse collector, they drove a beat-up old Russian truck and threw the refuse into the back. People left what they had on the street and it smelled quite awful but when it was gone the wind off the river soon dispersed the odour. I sat in the same seat. I always sat in that seat, usually with my charcoals, making sketches as preparation for paintings. I love this city. I had just started to sketch the bridge when the chair next to me was pulled back and she sat down. She didn’t say anything and for a few minutes just watched as the bridge took shape on my page.
“It’s very beautiful.” She said.
I wanted to reply, “and so are you,” but instead I just smiled and continued. I still didn’t know quite what to say.
We sat in silence for another few minutes while I continued to sketch, my mind punishing me for not speaking. She lit a cigarette and its tip glowed amber, it was a grey day and its glow illuminated her face as the smoke drifted away on the breeze.
“Do you draw here often?”
I nodded, slowly. Looking up for a second to acknowledge her and smile.
“Do you speak, ever?”
“Occasionally,” I said, “occasionally.”
I guess it was not the greatest start to a relationship but something must have clicked somewhere. I’ll never know why she didn’t give up on me there and then. Someone once said that from tiny acorns mighty oaks grow, I guess we were like that too.
“Do you think it will snow?” She asked, ignoring my inability to form sentences.
“Yes, I think it may, it looks that way.”
“If it snows we can go inside, you could sketch me.” She said, smiling with a girlish enthusiasm that belied her years.
“Perhaps,” I said, and went back to my work.
She’d have been excused for thinking I was disinterested but our silence seemed to speak far more than words could have. I think sometimes that is the way, sometimes words can come cheap and they’re there for a moment offering illumination on your life and then before you know it they’ve gone. Anyone can say anything, it doesn’t mean they mean it, but sat there outside the café in the cold of winter I could tell that we somehow understood each other.
There are two times in my life that I have been truly afraid. They were very different types of fear but yet the symptoms were the same, the cold sweat and the foul taste of iron on my tongue.
The first time was on the way into a town called Trijuete on the twelfth of March 1937. It was a picturesque little Spanish town, or at least it would have been, were it not for the planes and the bombs and the tanks and the death. Death hung over that place like the entrance to sheol. The day before that the fascists had smashed through our lines and attacked us on the road to Torija. We fought for it as though our backs were against a wall. By nightfall we were surrounded by our own dead and wounded but had successfully held the position against their onslaught.
I spent the first part of the night keeping sentry in a ditch by the road with the corpse of an Austrian private slumped next to me, his eyes stared blankly ahead of him as though he was keeping his own lonely vigil. It had been the biggest engagement I’d fought in and it was only then, in that ditch, that the reality sunk home: my chances of surviving the war were in the hands not of myself or my fellow man but of blind chance. That day it had been the little Austrian but the next day it could easily be me.
As dawn broke the town was blanketed in grey and pink hues of colour; the night had given birth not just to day but to fear. We checked our weapons and fixed our bayonets and prepared to launch our assault. I remember my legs did not want to move, it was as though they knew what was to come and were refusing to play their part. I rubbed at my calves until they were red and stretched as best I could and slowly some life started to come back into them. We were all talking in hushed tones, waiting for the order to go and trying to distract ourselves from the thought of what lay ahead.
The order came quickly and we started to walk towards the town at a brisk pace. There were sporadic outbreaks of fire as we fanned out and some of our men ran into their pickets. As we drew closer to the town we could make out shadowy figures, flitting between buildings and taking up positions, so we broke into a jog and started to close in on the town. The fire from the town started to pick up as we got closer and a few of our men fell, though whether they were wounded or dead none of us knew; we just kept on walking. It’s grotesque and inhumane to walk past your fallen comrades and yet the only thing you know is that you must keep going forward or you too will be picked off. As the fire increased we broke into a charge and there was shooting from both sides and the noise was unbearable.
Once we made it into the town itself things only got worse. You can’t describe the kind of carnage of battle; you’ve either lived it or you haven’t and no amount of mere words can explain the emotions, the fears and the chaos. We used the bayonet that day and the fighting was close and terrible. Somehow, when the dust settled and the screaming had subsided into groaning we held the town and many nationalist prisoners who had surrendered rather than face our steel.
The second time that I was really afraid was here in Budapest. There was no one trying to kill me, no snipers shooting down on us from house tops or gun fire from doorways. It was the day I proposed to her and the fear was not one of death but of life in the eventuality that she said no. I hadn’t a lot of money but, having sold some paintings at far below what they were worth, I managed to get together enough for a ring; it was a plain silver band that I bought at a pawnbrokers shop. I wasn’t naïve, I knew that much of what these shops sold had been confiscated or stolen from someone who had displeased the Communists, but what would the former owner have preferred: that their ring was lost or that it came to mean love for someone else? Of course, I never have told her where the ring came from, some things are best left unsaid.
I proposed to her at the café where we had first met. She tells me that she had no idea, and judging by her exclamations and enthusiastic hand clapping you’d think her honest, but I don’t see how she could have not realised from my nerves that day. Then again, there were a lot of nervous people in Budapest at that time – almost as many as there are now.
As you can tell from the fact that I’m writing this and haven’t ceased to exist, she said yes. Or at least, I think she said yes, the words came thick and fast and it was hard to catch them all. I had started to talk about poetry, because I had discovered since meeting her that beneath the battled and worn exterior there lay an old romantic; we talked about István Gyöngyösi and as I quoted the words:
Her brow’s a lily, and her choral lip
The grace of Spartan Helen’s might outstrip.
Such flowers should not droop in loneliness –
‘Twere meet your dewy kiss made haste to bless.
I took out the ring and provoked that fevered excitement of which you have already heard, that fevered excitement that brought with it my fulfilment. We were wed on November tenth, my birthday, in a small catholic church near her father’s home. It was one year since we had first met.
She, it has turned out, is not only the most beautiful woman in the two cities but is also a spirited fighter. It is to my great shame that I, I who fought Franco, was not the first to answer the call to arms in this city too. Perhaps it is that years of fighting tyrants have turned me into a jaded cynic. I no longer felt that any action of mine could change things. It was her spirit that lifted mine, her forceful exhortations that led me to arms and it is her optimism and hope that has kept me steady here with my rifle by my side, waiting for the Americans to intervene and bring us freedom. Karl Marx told the people that they had nothing to lose but their chains, it is ironic then that those chains we’re trying to lose were forged in the minds of he and his ilk.
It all started just over two weeks ago when the students marched on Parliament. Some of them entered the radio station and were held by the police and then it all went crazy. The anger at years of repression and hardship burst out and the city decided that it was time it stopped. It is a thing of great pride to see your countrymen rise up as one and fight. It took us only one day to see the back of Hegedus and for Nagy to take over the government again; it was then that everyone knew that we could see change if we fought for it. We gathered peacefully on the Thursday, outside the Parliament building and it was then that we were ambushed. Both the secret police and the soviet troops started to fire on us and what could we do? We had no option but to fight back.
After the skirmishes by the Parliament building the people broke lose. We made bombs from bottles and petrol and we fought the Russians everywhere we could find them. As they had fought street by street for the freedom of Stalingrad now we did the same for the freedom of Budapest. I fought hard but not nearly so hard as she did. The revolution has sparked something in her soul, there is fire in her eyes and she does everything with vigour and determination. She has risen to the challenges of this battle in a way that only she could; she remains my wife and the most kind and beautiful woman I have ever met and yet when it comes to the fighting she is like someone else entirely, a brave woman who knows no fear and fights as though avenging some wrong in her distant past. Perhaps there is something in that, perhaps her motives are not only freedom but revenge, but if that is so she hasn’t shared it with me.
On one occasion, as we ran into an alleyway on the way out of the city, she climbed onto the top of one of their retreating tanks. The commander tried to turn the turret and throw her off but failing that he raised the hatch and made to attack her. I fired my rifle at him but missed. Opening the hatch was a mistake, however, as she deposited a bottle bomb right in the tank. She leapt down, out of his reach, and we ran in the other direction before hearing the explosion and then the muffled, harrowing sounds of screaming.
By Sunday we held the city. They’d all fled and Nagy started to bring in reforms and peel back some of the layers of repression. Those first two or three days I thought that the tanks would return but by Wednesday I finally agreed that we were free. On Saturday the word came that the Soviets had encircled the city. Freedom, it seems, is something that must be fought for over and over again but we were, and are, ready for that fight.
The attack they launched was coordinated and timed to perfection. I want to tell how we gallantly fought them off but the truth is that they had driven their tanks into the city and divided us before we managed to respond. So much for our great resistance we were split and splintered off into small groups. I think it is better this way; we could never beat them in a pitched battle, they are far too strong, but we can fight them in our small groups and then disappear and then attack again. They will not prevail, all we must do is stay free and stay fighting until the Americans come. We have been tuned, whenever we can, to Radio Free Europe. They tell us to keep up the fight and they encourage us to be bold.
I wish she was here now, today is November tenth. It is our anniversary and it is the first day since we were wed that I have awoke without the soothing sound of her breathing next to me. The priest who blessed our vows spoke of the two becoming one flesh and that is how it feels; I feel as though a part of me is not here, as though I were missing an arm or a leg. I know I should not feel this way – what kind of a man am I that one night without her and I am feeling this way? Will we not be reunited soon? I need to concentrate and focus.
She left yesterday afternoon with Miklós; they left by the back door to go and get some more ammunition and send a message to László. László has a long wave radio set and will be able to broadcast to the west; hopefully somebody, somewhere will pick up our message and will know the situation here and what we know of the enemy positions. I did not want her to go. At first I said that she could not but she ignored my pleas and told me that she must as she was the only one who knew László personally. I relented and accepted that they had to go. We did not kiss or say goodbye, she just disappeared out of the door with a look of determination.
I am lying here by the window in what used to be the bedroom of a second floor apartment in Csepel. They’ve pinned back our resistance but they have not quenched the flame and the more time passes the sooner it must be that the Americans will come. They will not desert us, we who fight now for liberty and for democracy. They are our brothers now and they will come. There is little left in the room that hasn’t been ransacked and we have used what furniture there is to strengthen our position.
From my window I can see right down the street that runs towards the city centre. There are Russian Tanks about four hundred yards away now and the occasional glimpse of infantry moving from house to house. Every so often I take a shot at one of those tanks; my rifle would never penetrate their armour but it lets them know that we’re still here. I’m watching for the next moment that an infantryman comes into view and then he’ll pay with his life.
A short time ago the shelling from the tanks stepped up. The noise of explosions has been shaking the building; there is no glass left in any of the windows here and the fronts of some of the houses have been blown in altogether. Every few moments another round hits home and a billow of dust and smoke streaks out into the street. I hope that she is safe, part of me hopes that she never comes back here; László lives away from the brunt of this attack.
Miklós has arrived back but she is not with him. His arm, if you can still refer to it as such, is in a terrible state. She is not with him. My heart nearly gave out when I saw him return alone. He was shaking terribly and barely able to speak through the pain but he managed to tell some of what happened. He said that they separated when they left here, she took a back route to avoid the worst of the shelling but he had to take the main street. He was dashing past the front of one of the buildings along the street when a tank round smashed into it. He must have been hit by the rubble when the front of the building collapsed into the street. The arm is beyond repair, we all know that, though no one has said it. We have laid him out on a mattress in the passage so he is away from any more shelling. I think that he has broken ribs too and his breathing is shallow and slow. I went through to try and give him some company but he is sullen and won’t look me in the eye.
Another round just hit next door and the wall that joins it to this place has fallen in entirely. It sags open onto the street a ghastly rupture in what was once a home. The Americans must come soon, they must relieve us or reinforce us. They will not let us down, freedom will prevail.
There is no need for the window now, we can take our shots out through the hole in the wall. I killed one of them only a few minutes ago – at least, I assume he was dead. He was kicking in the door of a boarded up shop, they’re only a hundred yards away now, and I hit him first shot. He fell like a bag of rocks but there is no satisfaction in it. I just want it to be over. I have fought enough and now I want to enjoy our freedom, I want to take her to the country and to do the things that normal couples do.
The thud of tank rounds has stopped. I’ve crawled across to the last remaining piece of cover between me and the street. I craned forward moments ago to survey the damage. The street is a mess of rubble and ruins and the soviet troops are real close now, close enough to hear them speaking. We’re holding fire at the moment while János sets up our machine gun. They’ll blow the apartment if we open up on them now so we’ll wait until they’re close enough to spit on and then we’ll have them. A plane just went overhead and I hoped that it was the American Airborne. There was no sign of paratroops though, unless they’ve dropped them elsewhere.
I can see in the rubble of the street a handbag just like hers. It’s strange how you notice such things and how everyday objects remind you of ones you love. I hope that she is safe, I hope that she is safe. Poor Miklós is groaning and every sound reminds me that she is still out there. János has the machine gun at the top of the stairwell; they may make it up to the first floor but they’ll never get to the second. That leaves me to pick off the men in the street. We can hold this building, we can hold our freedom. The troops are kicking in the door of our building now, so I must put down the pen and take up the sword once more. Today is November Tenth, and today we will win our freedom.
Story and Photos by Peter Jobes, © 2010 – 2015. All Rights Reserved.